What's in a name?: How famous surnames are monopolising modelling

Kendall Jenner (left), Gigi Hadid (centre) and Bella Hadid (right)

A little pattern has emerged in today’s generation of “it” models. Sure, they have beautiful faces and amazing bodies, but they have even better connections. The most-followed models of the day are a catalogue of celebrity spawn: Kendall Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, Kaia Gerber, Lily Rose Depp. They dominate runways and campaigns, beating out lesser-known models with their social relevance. You name a famous fashion house, they’ve walked for it. Between them they’ve graced the cover of every big-name publication. The problem is not that they lack beauty, since their genetics guaranteed them aesthetic superiority. The bone that many fashion purists have to pick with these heiresses is that their conquest of the modelling industry is slowly sapping the creativity out of fashion.

Kaia Gerber and mother, supermodel Cindy Crawford

Today’s modelling landscape is wildly different to that of the 90s, widely acknowledged as the golden age of the supermodel. Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Giselle Bündchen, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer… These women, who defined the face of fashion in the last decade of the 20thcentury, all rose from obscurity to international stardom, aided by the caring and talented hands of Gianni Versace and Azzedine Alaïa. Whether scouted in New York’s JFK Airport (à la Moss), whilst window-shopping in Covent Garden (à la Campbell) or at a Dusseldorf nightclub (à la Schiffer), what all of these famous names have in common are the years of unwavering dedication which made them stars in a notoriously cruel industry.

Jenner has graced many a Vogue cover.

In November 2017, Kendall Jenner replaced Gisele Bündchen as the year’s highest earning model, in a sort of symbolic passing of the torch from the old generation of supermodels to the new. But Jenner, a member of the Kardashian clan, has also been a recipient of hate from fashion purists. In an interview with LOVE magazine, she described her approach to modelling: “Since the beginning, we’ve been super selective about what shows I would do… I was never one of those girls who would do like 30 shows a season or whatever the fuck those girls do. More power to ‘em. But I had a million jobs, not only catwalks but everything else. The whole combination was very overwhelming and I started to freak out a little bit and needed to take a step back.” This comment, naturally, did not resound well with her peers in the modelling industry. Many hit back with the explanation that the majority of models do not have the privilege of being “super selective”. For those without the security of a celebrity dynasty to fall back on, each booking is a much-needed source of income. Hardly anyone in the industry has the same luxury of “a million jobs”, which is why Kendall’s comment came off as particularly distasteful and lacking in self-awareness. Her incredible success as a model as well as her inability to acknowledge her privilege have made her a figure which attracts much bitterness. Take, for example, an incident back in 2014, when Jenner was just starting out, where she reportedly experienced bullying from the other models backstage (with some even stubbing out their cigarettes in her drink!) 

Model Leomie Anderson's response to Kendall's comment

Kendall and Gigi at a Victoria's Secret fashion show, where they were reportedly bullied by other models.

Kendall and Bella modelling for Off-White, with Kaia Gerber in the background. This photo sums up who the most-booked models are.

For an indication of just how blatantly nepotism is rampaging through the industry, let’s take a look at the Fashion Awards for the past few years. Since 2015, the nominations for the Model of the Year award have been looking suspiciously familiar. Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, daughter of model and television personality Yolanda Hadid, lost to Anna Ewers that year, but luckily for their fans, they’d be back time and time again. Gigi won the award in 2016, beating out her sister Bella and best friend Kendall. In 2017, the Hadid sisters were nominated yet again, as well as Kaia Gerber, daughter of original “super” Cindy Crawford. They were all beaten however, by Adwoa Aboah. Though this is a welcome win in terms of encouraging diversity in fashion, let it not be forgotten that Aboah herself is a beneficiary of nepotism: her father is the model location scout Charles Aboah and her mother, Camilla Lowther, runs one of the most successful creative industry management agencies in the world. Then, in 2018, the award was snatched by Kaia Gerber, to the dismay of Bella Hadid who was nominated again. Which brings us to this year’s Fashion Awards. And who are the nominees? Though it is the most diverse line-up to date (which is no small achievement in an industry which has long favoured thin, white bodies), fashion just can’t leave its penchant for nepotism alone, with Gerber and Aboah making another appearance.

Lily-Rose Depp with Karl Lagerfeld.

Depp descendant Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of Johnny and model Vanessa Paradis), became the face of Chanel in 2016, as her own mother had been just a few decades before. The way she described her history with Chanel is almost poetic, a meant-to-be fashion fairytale: “My mum has worked with them since she was 18 and I’ve gone to the store with her since I was little.” Peel back the romance and nostalgia which colour the story, though, and it’s really just an admission of how the privileged stay privileged. To risk sounding too simplistic: with Karl Lagerfeld as a family friend, once Lily-Rose was old enough to know she wanted to venture into fashion, all her mother had to do was call up Uncle Karl and voilà! 

Lila Moss' Dazed cover

Then there was the criticism that befell Lila Moss’ first solo cover shoot. She made her cover-girl debut on Dazed’s Winter 2018 issue. It was dubbed “16 years in the making”, which struck a nerve with some seeing as her achievement was not the result of 16 years of her own hard work, clawing her way up through the industry, but simply another example of the industry’s love for mini-me’s. Lila’s father is Dazed’s CEO and co-founder Jefferson Hack, the stylist for her cover shoot was her godmother Katy England, and the agency she’s signed to is owned by none other than Kate Moss, her mother. 

A photo from Tommy Hilfiger's AW17 show. Notice Hailey Baldwin (second from left), as well as siblings Gigi and Anwar Hadid (far right).

The Tommy show featured more nuggets of nepotism, with Georgia May Jagger (above) and Elizabeth Jagger (below). (Yes, that Jagger.)

It’s not difficult to understand why star-studded surnames and familiar faces are so popular in the modelling industry. In the age of “influencers”, brands are acutely aware that campaigns oozing with star-power are way more click-able than a photoshoot with an unknown model. Indeed, the fashion industry can and has made covetable it-girls out of “nobodies”, but their job is made much easier when the model already has a gold-mine of followers to tap into. Why take creative risks which may not pay off when sticking a famous face in your campaign almost guarantees that it’ll go viral? Perhaps shaken by the descent of print, creative directors, editors and designers know they need to harness the Gen Z market in order to maintain relevance. It is a sound marketing strategy, but it is also lazy (and a little insulting to the intelligence and critical eye of younger consumers). 

Iris Law (daughter of Jude Law) became the face of Burberry Cosmetics in 2017.

Furthermore, the familiar faces of celebrity offspring trigger a sense of nostalgia, something which the young generation absolutely eats up. (And no wonder, because a lot of us spent our tween years scouring the internet for fashion inspiration with the keywords “vintage”, “retro” or “90s grunge”. Photographs of a fresh-faced, waif-like Kate Moss or a windswept, pouty Brigitte Bardot have been retweeted, reblogged or reposted countless times. Extra points for a black-and-white snap or a grainy filter.) A Grazia article, titled, “Fashion’s Nepotism Problem Has Never Been More Apparent” makes the point that to an extent fashion is simply about aspiration and glamour, which these millionaire munchkins are abundant in. What’s more aspirational and glamorous than an ethereal, exclusive elite us “commoners” could never hope to be part of?

It's apparent that Bella and Kendall aren't lacking in the beauty department, but they have attracted some criticism about their actual modelling skills.

Not that nepotism in the arts is anything new; every young creative is gravely mindful of the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. (Often, it’s a contributing factor as to why fledgling, unknown talent may forgo the arts altogether.) Hollywood loves it, it’s brought us the likes of Sofia Coppola, Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey Jr… The music industry loves it too (see: Jaden and Willow Smith). It’s not that parents should be barred from trying to brighten their children’s prospects; nepotism is a very understandable human behaviour, since all caring parents want to do whatever they can to ensure their children’s lives are easier than their own. Nepotism exists in every industry, but it is overwhelmingly obvious in fashion today. And I believe it is particularly detrimental to the industry since the practice not only suffocates existing fresh and up-and-coming talent, but its image as an impenetrable fortress has doubtless scared off many prospective creatives. Think of all the unique perspectives that we may never see because they decided that, instead of taking their chances with fashion, they would pursue something “safer”.

Brooklyn Beckham's photography collaboration with Burberry shows us that nepotism extends further than just modelling.

The phenomenon of famous parents providing their offspring with a generous head-start is not confined to the modelling industry, either. When the topic of fashion’s nepotism problem is brought up, the McCartney family name is often mentioned. Though Stella McCartney is a highly respected British designer, it would be fair to assume that her father Sir Paul’s cultural clout made her rise through the industry an easier experience than that of Alexander McQueen’s. 

Dolce and Gabbana's AW17 show was rife with family connections. Sofia Richie (above), daughter of Lionel, and Anais Gallagher (below), daughter of Noel.

There was also Gabriel Day-Lewis, son of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. But it didn't stop there, with Rafferty Law (son of Jude), Ella and Alexandra Richards (daughters of Keith) and Levi Dylan (grandson of Bob) making an appearance too.

In an industry where models are traditionally seen as merely clothes-hangers, this nepotism problem is a depressing reminder to aspiring models that they’ll have an extremely hard time getting anywhere without famous lineage or a mountainous social following. Linda Evangelista famously said, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.” But for all except a tiny fraction of models, the reality is grossly different. The modelling industry is one which is notoriously cruel and difficult to penetrate. The mysticism and glamour built around it has been broken down, particularly with the advent of social media, which has given many an outlet to expose its ugly side. Instagram account @shitmodelmgmt makes light of the slew of hardships that models face whilst trying to catch their big break. Is there any wonder, then, that there is a strong sense of bitterness towards these models who were fast-tracked to stardom on the back of their surnames? For those who didn’t have that luxury and have poured years of their youth into achieving their dream (years of being suffocated by the demanding measurements which rule high fashion, never allowed to stray an inch from the ideal lest they lose their bookings), the anger is quite warranted. Imagine being afraid of food for your entire adolescent and adult life, facing more rejection than a 30-year-old incel with a neckbeard who still lives with his mum, and still struggling to make ends meet despite the countless hours of dedication. And then, to add insult to injury, you see media empire heiresses reaping ten times the benefits whilst putting in a fraction of the work. Hell, I’d stub my cigarettes out in Kendall Jenner’s drink too. 

The internet was supposed to democratise creative industries, giving anyone the opportunity to showcase their work and reap the door-opening results of their talent. And though such feel-good, rags-to-riches success stories are possible, social media is also a sobering reminder that the biggest winners are still the already-privileged. When artistic industries are already tough enough to break into, the obsession with celebrity babies is a sour message to send about meritocracy in fashion. Often, one already has to come from (at least) a middle-class background to get past the stage of unpaid internships in fashion capitals with extortionate rent. In an industry which has long been criticised for its superficiality, elitism and inaccessibility, this love for celebrity offspring is not a great PR exercise. 

Written by Anastasia Vartanian


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